After receiving a joyous welcome to New York City, Pope Francis arrived at the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan Friday and led a multi-religious prayer for peace, his second stop on a day chock-full of events featuring a procession in Central Park and Mass at Madison Square Garden.
"I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction," the pope told 400 representatives from faith groups and nearly two dozen relatives of 9/11 victims. "Here, grief is palpable. This is a place where we cry."
Standing near the underground flood wall that separates lower Manhattan from the Hudson River and held fast during the 2001 terrorist attacks, His Holiness spoke about meeting some of the families of 9/11 first responders, saying he once again saw how acts of destruction are not impersonal.
They "always have a face," Francis said.
Family members showed the other side of their pain, though, he said. They showed the "power of love and remembrance," a memory "that does not leave us empty."
Earlier, Francis solemnly approached the reflecting pools that mark the footprints of the World Trade Center's twin towers before they were felled by the 2001 attacks, bowing his head and clasping his hands in prayer as he blinked at the bronze panels that bear the names of the nearly 3,000 people killed. After a pause, he lifted his head for another moment of silence as cameras snapped behind him, then placed a white rose at the edge of one of the pools.
The pope met with at least 10 families of Sept. 11 victims and emergency responders, gracefully lingering to speak with more relatives who crowded around him on the hallowed plaza.
Bob Lembo, a firefighter who responded to the World Trade Center the day the towers came down, said the pope's visit brought some closure.
"For him to respect this place, to come down here, all the brothers and sisters we lost, it means a lot," Lembo said.
Twelve-year-old Patricia O'Keefe, who is in a wheelchair, waited near the memorial early Friday with her mother, who worked with the Red Cross and opened the first respite center on 9/11. The Fairfield, Connecticut, girl said it was a "dream come true" to be at the event with a chance to see the pope.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray were among the dignitaries who greeted the pontiff at the somber site before the entourage headed into the museum to hold prayers for peace in five different religions with an imam and a rabbi.
There, he called for building unity, saying there should be opposition to "any attempt to make us all the same." Pope Francis encouraged all to "say yes to our differences, accepting reconciliation."
The pontiff said the world must look to its diversity of languages, cultures and religions and throw away "feelings of hate and revenge and rancor."
After the multi-religious prayer ceremony, Francis had a private viewing of the "Last Column," the final steel beam removed during the recovery after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He also saw a Bible that was recovered at the site.
Francis is the first pontiff to visit the Sept. 11 memorial. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, prayed at the World Trade Center site in 2008 before the memorial opened.
Monsignor John Delendick, the FDNY chaplain and pastor of St. Jude’s Church in Canarsie, was in the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks. He compared Francis’ public prayer to his predecessor’s private prayer at the site by saying the current pontiff was taking it to a “logical next step.”
“He says, ‘Well, I’m going to go there and pray, but I want all of you to pray with me,’” Delendick said. “And not just Catholics, or Christians, but people of all faiths. You know, we need to pray together if we want peace in this world. We’ve got to unify and do it together.”
The service was just one of the pope’s stops during a busy Friday around Manhattan.
It followed the first papal address to the United Nations' General Assembly in which Pope Francis declared there is a "right of the environment" and that mankind has no authority to abuse it, telling more than 100 world leaders and diplomats that urgent action is needed to halt the destruction of God's creation.
In the afternoon, the pope Francis made a trip to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem.
Then, tens of thousands of New Yorkers and spectators across the country crowded Central Park to see Francis, who led a procession through the iconic grounds before celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden.
He will depart for Philadelphia Saturday morning.